A broad survey of executives at large companies shows that chief financial officers are feeling less optimistic than they were a year ago.
Consulting firm Deloitte released the first-quarter 2014 results from its regular survey of CFOs from more than 100 of North America's biggest companies, and optimism is down year-over-year on concerns about economic weakness in China and emerging markets, and how a stalling labor market might affect consumer spending.
In past years, the survey has shown a first-quarter bounce in optimism, with forecasts for sales, earnings, and capital spending peaking before declining as the year grinds on.
The first quarter of 2014 was different. There was no bounce, earnings forecasts are low and CFOs are less optimistic regarding the growth prospects of their organizations in 2014 than they have been at the start of each of the previous three years.
"A lot of what we're seeing is that we've had this around-the-corner recovery for a few years now," said Greg Dickinson, director of the survey for North America. "What we see now is largely what we've got, at least for the foreseeable future."
Earnings growth projections are down from 12.1 percent in 2013 to 7.9 percent in 2014. Sales growth projections are down from 5.4 percent to 4.6 percent. Domestic hiring projections are flat at 1 percent.
As a result, more companies are planning to sink cash into dividends and stock buybacks. Expectations for dividend growth are at a 3 ½-year high of 5.7 percent. Nearly 30 percent of CFOs say they will significantly increase dividends this year, and roughly the same proportion expect a major buyback, according to the survey.
"That's kind of an indication too, that they don't necessarily feel like they can justify especially long-term investments," Dickinson said.
The Affordable Care Act continues to impact health care costs, according to the survey: 60 percent of CFOs say they plan to pass health care costs on to employees; 23 percent expect to reduce the scope of benefits offered to some employees; 16 percent expect to reduce the level or value of benefits provided; and 12 percent expect to pass costs on to customers by raising prices.
The recent crisis in Crimea has probably added to concerns among executives, Dickinson said.
"The answers that we got in this survey, that was before Crimea," he said. "There was already concern. If you did the survey again now, especially in Europe, maybe you'd get a bit more worry."
However, CFOs predicted higher capital spending than a year ago, and the share of surveyed CFOs who view the North American economy as either good or not getting worse rose from 60 percent at the end of 2013 to 72 percent in the first quarter.
"We're not talking about people spending less or hiring less than they have in previous years," Dickinson said. "We're just saying that coming off the recession you're not seeing the kind of acceleration that we might have hoped for."